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Blood pressure is a measurement of the force exerted against the walls of your arteries as your heart pumps blood to your body. Hypertension is the term used to describe high blood pressure.
Blood pressure readings are given as two numbers. The top number is called the systolic blood pressure. The bottom number is called the diastolic blood pressure. For example, 120 over 80 (written as 120/80 mmHg).
One or both of these numbers can be too high. (Note: These numbers apply to people who are not taking medicines for blood pressure and are not ill.)
If you have heart or kidney problems, or you had a stroke, your doctor may want your blood pressure to be even lower than that of people who do not have these conditions.
Many factors can affect blood pressure, including:
You are more likely to be told your blood pressure is too high as you get older. This is because your blood vessels become stiffer as you age. When that happens, your blood pressure goes up. High blood pressure increases your chance of having a stroke, heart attack, heart failure, kidney disease, or early death.
You have a higher risk of high blood pressure if you:
Most of the time, no cause of high blood pressure is found. This is called essential hypertension.
High blood pressure that is caused by another medical condition or medicine you are taking is called secondary hypertension. Secondary hypertension may be due to:
Most of the time, there are no symptoms. For most people, high blood pressure is found when they visit their health care provider or have it checked elsewhere.
Because there are no symptoms, people can develop heart disease and kidney problems without knowing they have high blood pressure.
Malignant hypertension is a dangerous form of very high blood pressure. Symptoms include:
Your health care provider will measure your blood pressure many times before diagnosing you with high blood pressure. It is normal for your blood pressure to be different based on the time of day.
Blood pressure readings taken at home may be a better measure of your current blood pressure than those taken at your provider's office.
Your provider will do a physical exam to look for signs of heart disease, damage to the eyes, and other changes in your body.
Tests may also be done to look for:
The goal of treatment is to reduce your blood pressure so that you have a lower risk of complications. You and your provider should set a blood pressure goal for you.
If you have pre-hypertension, your provider will recommend lifestyle changes to bring your blood pressure down to a normal range. Medicines are rarely used for pre-hypertension.
You can do many things to help control your blood pressure at home, including:
Your provider can help you find programs for losing weight, stopping smoking, and exercising.
You can also get a referral to a dietitian, who can help you plan a diet that is healthy for you.
How low your blood pressure should be and at what level you need to start treatment is individualized, based on your age and any medical problems you have.
MEDICINES FOR HYPERTENSION
Most of the time, your provider will try lifestyle changes first and check your BP 2 or more times. Medicines will likely be started if your BP readings remain at or above these levels:
If you have diabetes, heart problems, or a history of a stroke, medicines may be started at lower blood pressure reading. The most commonly used blood pressure targets for people with these medical problems are below 130 to 140/80 mmHg.
There are many different medicines to treat high blood pressure.
Most of the time, high blood pressure can be controlled with medicine and lifestyle changes.
When blood pressure is not well-controlled, you are at risk for:
If you have high blood pressure, you will have regular checkups with your health care provider.
Even if you have not been diagnosed with high blood pressure, it is important to have your blood pressure checked during your regular check-up, especially if someone in your family has or had high blood pressure.
Call your provider right away if home monitoring shows that your blood pressure is still high.
Most people can prevent high blood pressure from occurring by following lifestyle changes designed to bring blood pressure down.
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Reviewed By: Michael A. Chen, MD, PhD, Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Cardiology, Harborview Medical Center, University of Washington Medical School, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.